I crawl under the fence and start for the Victor's Village. My game bag is unusually light, but my basket is filled to the brim with berries. Peeta requested them last night for a cake he remembers tasting at President Snow's party during the Victory Tour. He didn't specify how much he needed, so I stripped every bush bare of the ripe ones. The cool breeze brushes past my face as I pass through the still sleeping town. The sun casts a soft glow over the rooftops, and long shadows lazily stretch across the newly paved paths of the square. They began reconstruction two months ago. Slowly, it is beginning to resemble the one etched into my memory. The place where the spark was lit, where Primrose Everdeen's name was picked out of thousands, and I screamed and desperately volunteered to save her. I didn't.
I arrive to see Peeta sketching intently on the steps to my front door. He doesn't notice me until my silhouette blocks the sunlight from his notepad. His eyes meet mine and he shifts his position in a show of asking me to sit with him. I do, and lean over curiously. He is drawing the row of houses across the street. I watch, transfixed, as his charcoal flies skillfully across the page, creating a photographic pattern of the shadows that drape over the walls. Every crack on the roofs, every uneven picket, and every streak of sunlight is represented on his page. The dawn has always been something ordinary to me, but in Peeta's hands it has become impossibly beautiful.
"Done," he says, slipping the charcoal in his pocket. He wipes his hands on his pants and smiles at me.
"It's very good," I comment.
He smirks. "You say the same thing for all of my drawings."
"No, " I lie unthinkingly. He raises his eyebrows, and I blush. "I always mean it." I insist.
He looks amused but doesn't press further. "Thank you, Katniss," he says quietly, reaching for my tightly wound fingers and giving them a gentle squeeze. The warmth is gone as quickly as it came.
I stare at his hands, and the traces of flour in his fingernails remind me of my expedition this morning. I take the basket hidden under my game big and hand it to him. "Here."
Peeta looks at the basketful of berries, stunned. I am suddenly worried that it is insufficient. "Is it enough? I picked every ripe one I could see."
He considers my words for a minute then barely stifles a laugh. "Oh no, Katniss. I wanted more. Every single berry from every single bush in the entire vicinity of District 12." I glower at him, but Peeta continues, "I think I should put the cheese buns on hold. How do you feel about berry bread for a whole week?"
I shove him, hard. He rubs his arm but that stupid grin is still plastered on his face. I swing my game bag over my shoulder and am ready to stalk into the house when Peeta grabs my wrist. "Katniss, wait."
I look at him with all the annoyance I can muster. "What?" I say brusquely.
He coughs in an effort to keep his face even. "Let's do something today. Something different," he suggests.
I eye him closely, not knowing what to make of the sudden change in routine. "O-okay," I say hesitantly.
He smiles at my strange lack of stubbornness. "Maybe we can take a walk around town? Visit the new shops?"
I shake my head immediately. Going into town means meeting the people who occupy the houses where the baker used to live, where the florist used to work, and where the seamstress used to sew. It is also difficult to walk through town without seeing Prim everywhere.
He looks at me sympathetically and tucks a stray strand behind my ear. "Then what do you want to do?" he asks gently.
Hmm. I close my eyes and breathe in the cold air. I need a place that I associate with good memories. "The roof." I finally say, opening my eyes to see if he remembers. My stomach sinks.
Peeta's expression is inscrutable. He seems to be recalling something that has been lost in the recesses of his mind, but horribly twisted by science. His hands are so tightly fisted that the whites of his knuckles show.
It should have registered that our day spent on the roof could not have escaped the Capitol. Although there were no cameras, it was in the Capitol's Training Centre, and they have their ways of knowing. The few stolen minutes where Peeta returned to me have to succumb to the greater that ruthlessly throws him back into a dark, tracker-jacker induced arena, feeding him lies that mess up everything he has worked hard to rebuild.
There are still times when I have to leave him alone, leave him violently shaking, his hands clutched on the back of the chair, desperately trying to hold onto what he has reconstructed in his mind to be real. But today, I pry his fingers open and carefully slip my fingers in the spaces. I don't care if it endangers me. I owe it to Peeta.
His fingers grasp mine tightly, a sign that he isn't completely lost. My hand goes numb. My arm loses all feeling. Then, after what seems like an eternity, his grip relaxes and he lets out a breath. He has won, for now.
He lifts his head to look at me. "I'm sorry." He extricates his fingers from mine and places his forehead to his fists.
I don't know what to say. Peeta's normally the one who offers words of comfort. So I sit and wait. I drum my fingers on my knees. I eat some of the berries. I redo my braid. I grab Peeta's notepad and start flipping through the endless pages of exquisite drawings. I am in half of the entire collection, and they are the least accurate sketches he has done. The girl he has drawn is beautiful despite her scars. I am far from that, but at the same time I am grateful that he has depicted me in that way. It could have been worse. A mutt, with unforgiving gray eyes and dark matted fur, could have just as easily graced the pages of this notebook. I shudder.
"Are you cold?"
I turn to the voice. Peeta looks concerned. A wave of relief washes over me as I shake my head. He's back.
"Let's go to the woods," I chirp, hoping to distract him. "We can bring some food and have lunch there."
"No, " he sets his jaw. "We can go to the roof."
"You don't have to." I say.
He stares at me for a long time. "I remember," he murmurs, his blue eyes lightening as the conflicted look fades away. "The apples. The picnic. The sunset." A tentative smile tugs at the corners of his lips as he says the last word.
I have to remind myself to breathe under the intensity of his gaze. "Yes," I say.
We sit like that until the sun finally reaches its position in the early morning sky. The conversation is easy, reminiscent of better days. I surprise myself by managing to coax a laugh out of Peeta. He ends up giving me his sweater. When he stands and pulls me up, he looks relaxed once more. I watch as he starts down the steps and turns back at the gate. "Wear something nice," he calls, winking. I roll my eyes.